WhatsApp police

The other day, as I was trawling through my Twitter timeline, one tweet particularly grabbed my attention, which is saying a lot, since Twitter as a whole is an attention hog. In any case, this tweep was begging folks who send misinformation to oldies on WhatsApp to stop. She felt she had been turned into a fact-checker, and was exhausted by the attendant duties.

I don’t know the exact form the poor lady’s ordeal had taken. But I acutely identified with her predicament. Quite possibly, she is in some of those overpopulated general purpose family and neighbourhood groups, in which everyone is frequently forced to bear with shady content forwarded by fellow members.

It often happens that this kind of stuff is shared by a senior citizen, who has received it from someone they trust or think they should trust. Most often, though, they just don’t know they should only share stuff they themselves trust. Or they don’t even know what it means to trust information in the context of a social platform.

Part of the reason for this is that we live in a world that is increasingly more cognitively demanding. Merely performing mundane daily tasks requires crazy amounts of mental commitment these days. I mean, how many times have you stood sheepishly in front of a microwave oven about which the only thing you know is to open and close the door?

And if operating a microwave oven can make you scratch your head to baldness, you can be sure that navigating the modern informational landscape requires a much greater amount of cognitive adaptability. There’s just too much stuff out there for most people to know, at first sight, what is accurate and what isn’t, and then to assign it a share-worthiness score.

Moreover, as if the foregoing wasn’t enough, neuroscientists and psychologists say that our brain’s plasticity starts dropping as we finish our twenties. One of the results is that learning new things gets harder (not impossible, thankfully) as the twenties recede in the rear-view mirror. In plainer terms, you are already old by the time you hit 30. The world starts to move faster than you can keep up.

Add to this the fact that the present is more cognitively complex than any other time in human history (and keeps getting more so), and the other fact that everyone in my parents’ generation was well past 30 when WhatsApp gained its first user, and you have an unbeatable recipe for flotsam flying around from group to group and driving everyone nuts.

This is not to say that young people are immune to sharing inane material. Not by a long shot. I have seen some outlandish stuff peddled by reasonably young members of the human species. They are our generation’s shame, the black sheep with whom we have to bear being bundled in the same group.

Neither do I mean to castigate older people, nor even to chase them off WhatsApp. I’m not in the mood for another one of those boomer v. kids-these-days battles. Besides, these folks made us and watched us grow. In return, we made their world more complicated than they asked for, and left them scrambling to adapt. We will be on the receiving end soon ourselves, if Matiang’i and Uhuru’s uniformed goons don’t end us sooner, that is.

The point I’m trying to make is that misinformation that has the honour of being shared by a senior citizen is particularly difficult to correct publicly. And correcting them privately has its shortcomings, not least of which is that the approach just isn’t scalable. Correcting one person out back leaves 254 others uneducated, and thus liable to share even more ridiculous material later. And you can’t just invade people’s inboxes like some fraudster.

This state of affairs hasn’t been made any easier by the little fact that the sheer amount of incorrect, misleading, sensational or just plain useless content has increased copiously in the last few months. Perhaps it’s a result of the pandemic-induced confinement of people to their homes. Whatever the cause, so much of the stuff is making the rounds on WhatsApp that it is enough to drive anyone who can identify it to the point of exasperation.

It is mainly for this reason that I identify with the poor tweep with whose earnest appeal I started this article. Like her, I am tired of being made into a fact-checker by the collective gullibility of the anonymous masses. I would much rather argue against opinions with which I disagree, which is already hard enough, than have my energies wasted on patent nonsense

I am tired of watching from the side-lines as our discourse is infantilised by material that one cannot engage with without becoming a crackpot. I mean, do you really want me to believe that the WHO is giving people free internet bundles? Do you even know why the WHO exists? Why don’t you Google it, or ask someone about it, before you share crap with impressionable folks?

So I recently decided to throw chills out the window and take matters into my own hands. I started publicly correcting people who post misinformation or otherwise useless stuff on the groups of which I am a member. I am especially brutal against younger people because, to be honest, we really should know better.

We should be sophisticated enough to decide what to share and what ought to die in our inboxes. If we don’t play the role of digital information gatekeepers well, then we can’t blame our elders for hawking conspiracy theories and otherwise becoming pariahs. The moment you take trash out of your inbox and propagate it, you become a public enemy and place yourself securely at the centre of my crosshairs.

My campaign has worked like a charm. Across the groups that I am present on, some semblance of sanity has started to return. The most pleasant result is that more members now ask those who share questionable stuff for sources. Some have even swung to the other extreme, of trashing credible content. We need that kind of scepticism. That’s healthy.

I will keep doing this because it works. If you happen to be in a group with me and I trash something you post, feel free to take as much offense as you can.

Just stop sharing garbage. Share jokes instead.

Feature image: Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash.

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